Petraeus says there’s a bigger challenge to come once Iraq retakes Mosul from ISIS

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An Iraqi special forces soldier fires an RPG during clashes with Islamic States fighters in Bartella, east of Mosul, Iraq October 20, 2016.  REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX2PQI0

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JUDY WOODRUFF: The battle for Mosul is the most important of the two-year campaign against ISIS in Iraq, and a defeat there would be a crippling setback for the extremists.

We turn now to a man with detailed knowledge of the city and its ethnic and sectarian crosscurrents. Retired General David Petraeus was in charge of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul in 2003. He went on to command the entire multinational force in Iraq and also served as the top general for U.S. Central Command. He also ran NATO and American operations in Afghanistan. And, from 2011 to 2012, he served as director of the CIA.

He joins me now from New York.

General Petraeus, thank you for being with us.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, Former Commander, Multi-National Force Iraq: Good to be with you, Judy. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, last night at the debate, Donald Trump again criticized the Obama administration for telegraphing ahead of time the plan to go into Mosul.

Does Donald Trump have a point about not letting the enemy know what you’re going to do?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: What is going on here is, in a sense, a distinction between so-called strategic surprise, which is not possible when you’re moving tens of thousands of troops and thousands of vehicles and logistics and everything else, and then tactical surprise, which I think probably was achieved to some degree when the Iraqi forces launched the original operation several days ago, and actually has continued, as they have opened new offensives, if you will, from the north and the northeast, in addition to those in the initial day, which came from the south and from the southeast and east.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the challenges that the Iraqi military and its allies, including the U.S., face in Mosul?

You know that area well. Clearly, it’s changed since the takeover by ISIS. But what do you think they’re confronting?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, first, of course, they’re confronting what would be a tough fight in a city that’s several times larger than any that they have cleared so far over the course of the last two years, since we helped them reconstitute their forces, reequip, and retrain and remand them, and then as we have enabled them so impressively, frankly, with this armada of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, precision-strike assets and intelligence fusion, as well as obviously advising and assisting them.

And they will encounter a tough, tough city fight. Urban operations are inherently difficult. The enemy has been there for a couple of years, has dug tunnel systems, trenches filled with oil that they will torch to try to obscure our optics. They will use snipers. And every single house, every single neighborhood has to be cleared.

And this is a population that used to be, in our day, when I was privileged to command the 101st Airborne Division, in Mosul and Nineveh province, which Mosul Islamist capital, some two million people. It’s down probably to about 1.2 million now.

Some of those will leave and go to the refugees centers that have been set up to take care of them during the course of the battle. But many will also stay. And some will be trapped and kept there by the Islamic State, used essentially as human shields, announcement complicating factor for the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and indeed for our elements that are supporting them in this fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I do want to ask you about the challenges that the Iraqis face even assuming Mosul is cleared of ISIS.

But, first, are you confident that they will be able to get ISIS out of Mosul? And do you think it could take as long as a year, which the head of Central Command has said that it might?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: No, I think — with respect, I think he said it could take months, I think. Understandably, he’s giving a bit of the worst-case analysis.

It’s already moving faster than most predicted. I have said that, look, the Islamic State fighters that are left in Mosul, maybe as many as 5,000 or 6,000, they realize that they are dead men walking. There’s no question that the Iraqi security forces, with all of the enablers that we’re providing them, are going to clear that city. That’s not in question.

The only question is, how long do the Islamic State fighters really put up resistance? There are reports already of substantial numbers of deserters, many of whom have been executed, and of leaders trying to leave the city as well.

In fact, one of the big questions that is out there right now is, where is Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State? Is he trapped there with one of his explosives experts, or did he actually escape to the west and try to get back across the border to Syria?

But, again, no question that the Iraqi security forces will prevail. The bigger question is actually the battle after this. And I have made clear in writing a couple of months ago, for example, that the most complex human terrain in all of Iraq is to be found in Mosul and the province of which it is a capital, Nineveh, biblical Nineveh.

There are Sunni Arabs in the majority, but there are also pockets of Shia Arabs. There are Turkmen, Sunni as well as Shia. There are Kurds, and they come from several political parties that they’re not always in agreement with each other. There are sizable numbers of Christians that were treated horribly under the Islamic State and want to get back to their areas. There are Yazidis. There are Shabak.

And all of these want to get back from whence they came, and they want to play a part in governance that follows. And all will want to be represented and want that government to be responsive to them and guarantee their minority rights, if they’re not the Sunni Arabs, in addition to, of course, the Sunni Arab majority rule.

This is going to be very, very difficult. We did achieve it early on in 2003, when I was privileged to command there. But we had 28,000 great American soldiers. We had 254 helicopters. And I had the authority of being an occupying commander under the Geneva Convention, and didn’t hesitate, frankly, to use that authority.

There’s no equivalent power there at this point in time. So, this is going to take intense politics, intense negotiations and a lot of individuals undoubtedly demonstrating the full range of emotions along the way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you confident that the current Iraqi government is prepared to do what’s necessary to make sure that Mosul is stable going forward?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: I’m confident that they will do everything they possibly can.

The question is whether, frankly, that is going to be enough. There are going to be enormous grievances. There will be scores that some want to settle. Even within the sectarian groupings and ethnic groupings, there will be squabbles and disputes.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi knows that the government has to be inclusive. He knows that, for Iraq writ large, the Sunni Arabs have to be brought back into the fabric of society, as we were able to do during the surge.

One of the huge accomplishments, which sadly was undone some three-and-a-half years after the end of the surge by the previous prime minister, who took highly sectarian actions that inflamed that part of the population, allowed the Islamic State to get back up off its stomach, and indeed created fertile fields for the planting of the seeds of extremism.

The people now have once again been acquainted with that form of extremism. They want nothing of it. The people are actually reported rising up against the Islamic State in some of the villages outside Mosul, and undoubtedly will do that in some Mosul neighborhoods as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, finally, role for the U.S. in all of this is? Is it essential that the U.S. have a role here or not?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: It is essential that the U.S. has a role.

And I can assure you that the new ambassador there, the new commander on the ground, both experienced Iraq hands, both have multiple tours there in past years, that they are keenly aware that they have to engage in that, as is the special presidential enjoy, Brett McGurk, who has spent an enormous amount of time in Baghdad and Irbil up in the Kurdish regional government capital, trying to help foster all of this.

But that’s the extent of what we can do. We can encourage, we can nudge, we can cajole. We can’t force. And it is going to have to be Iraqis at the end of the day that come together, recognizing that, if they cannot, fertile fields will be planted for the planting of the seeds of ISIS 3.0, of further extremism in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General David Petraeus, we thank you very much.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Great to be back with you, Judy. Thank you.

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